It happened a little over 41 years ago, in the middle of a South Bronx park—a moment that would change Beny Meléndez, his street gang and rock band the Ghetto Brothers, and music history forever. When you hear him tell it, he sounds like it was only yesterday.
"My brothers came in the afternoon and we started playing music. 'I'm Your Captain,' by Grand Funk Railroad'," said Meléndez, vocalist for the Ghetto Brothers. "Then they told me some other gangs were looking for the Roman Kings and they're beating up people on the way here. I looked at Black Benjy and said, 'Take seven or eight Ghetto Brothers, no weapons, get me the leaders and bring them to me.' About half an hour later a guy comes running in, saying, 'They're beating up Benjy!' I said 'Move it, let's go!' We walked up 163rd Street to Stebbins Avenue, down Horseshoe Park. When I got to the bottom of the stairwell I saw his blood - oh God!"
Lying dead in the park that day was Cornell Benjamin, a.k.a Black Benjy, who had become Meléndez's (a.k.a Yellow Benjy) trusted lieutenant. But instead of lashing out with violence in revenge, Meléndez instead called for a peace summit with other gang leaders, and the Ghetto Brothers were transformed from roughneck turf-protectors to political organizers who helped set the stage for the dawn of hip-hop.
At first glance, Benjy Meléndez's story seems familiar and uncomplicated. Having been one of the major leaders of Bronx street gangs such as the Savage Nomads, Savage Skulls, and the Ghetto Brothers, Benjy and his banda of brothers (Robert and Victor Meléndez, who has since passed away, along with Chiqui Concepción, Luis Bristo, David Silva, Franky Valentin, and Angelo Garcia) eventually gave up the gang life to focus on music. The original line-up back then was Benjy on lead vocals, Benjy's brother Robert on rhythm guitar, Benjy's cousin Victor on bass, Chiqui Concepción on congas, David Silva on lead guitar, Angelo Garcia on bongos, and Franky Valentin on timbales.
But their music, seminal Latin rock, was recorded independently, got lost in the shuffle, and now, 40 years later, the only album they ever recorded, Power Fuerza, has been re-released by Truth and Soul Records for a new generations of listeners.
It's another Sixto Rodriguez story, this time about Puerto Rican rockers in New York, not a Chicano from Detroit.
While Rodriguez, the subject of this year's acclaimed documentary Searching For Sugar Man, was more in the Bob Dylan cantautor (singer/songwriter) mode, the Ghetto Brothers were a collective ensemble whose music was driven by staccato rhythm guitars, Afro-Cuban percussion, '60s funk, and doowop-style vocals. They were a jam band ( that at times evoked bands like Sly and the Family Stone, the original Mothers of Invention, pop psychedelia like Vanilla Fudge, and of course, the Beatles. While their signature track "Ghetto Brothers Power" blatantly borrows from Sly's "Wanna Take You Higher," it is an individual statement from the streets of an urban ground zero that was literally burning to the ground from almost daily arson fires.
There is plenty of sentiment here, from the bugaloo doowop "I Saw a Tear," to Brit-pop cha-cha-cha of "There Is Something in My Heart." But the recording's strength lies in the band's freewheeling jams like "Got This Happy Feeling" which somehow seems like a precursor to both Fela's Afrobeat and the suburban post-punk of the Feelies.
According to Meléndez, the song was the result of a happy accident. "The recording engineer said 'mira, you got one more song, you gotta do it.' " So I said "we don't have any more songs," and my brother said, "listen, you got this 'Happy Feeling,' and I said, 'but I never finished the song.' So he said, 'man, just say anything.' So when you hear that I start laughing because I just said anything."
The original 1971 Power Fuerza album's back cover.
It was this spontaneous spirit of improvisation that allowed Meléndez and the Ghetto Brothers to shift gears when confronted with the death of Cornell Benjamin. In this excerpt from the '90s documentary Flying Cut Sleeves, by Henry Chalfant and Rita Felcher, Melendez explains how and why he called for a peace summit between warring gang members. Jeff Chang's 2005 book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation further documents that one of those present in the South Bronx Boy's Club that day was Afrika Bambaata, who was inspired to throw the parties in his neck of the borough that most historians agree was the basis for the birth of hip-hop.
Interestingly enough, the Benjy Meléndez connection reveals an unexpected truth about hip-hop, that although it has evolved into a genre that seems disconnected from rock and mainstream American culture, its roots were at least partially affected by a New York Puerto Rican rocker who was also Jewish.
"My family were descendants of marranos from Spain," said Meléndez, referring to the derogatory word used to describe hidden Jews in Spain and Latin America. "My father would draw the curtains and read from the scriptures, then he would send us to the streets to play on Saturday, so no one would get the impression that we were Jews."
In the 1980s Meléndez became active in a synagogue in the South Bronx. "A woman in the synagogue asked my name and I said 'Meléndez' and she said, 'that's not Jewish, that's Spanish.' And I said 'what's your name?' and she said 'Epstein,' and I said, 'that's not Jewish, that's German.' She came up to me and apologized later."
Meléndez's fascination with California motorcycle gangs induced him to set a new trend for wearing colors that set the standard for inner city youth gangs of the '70s.